Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE) and Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Inc. (LAWO)
Through ABLE’s and LAWO’s Mobile Benefit Bank Program, clients in urban and rural communities receive thorough, personalized attention for gaining access to public benefits and legal services.
ABLE and LAWO bring access to public benefits to those in need, follow up with legal help
The Great Recession has forced some families who’ve never needed government aid before to turn to the state for help in meeting basic needs. To help them navigate the unfamiliar systems, ABLE and LAWO, two nonprofits focused on providing legal services for low and moderate income individuals, are deploying a highly personalized and mobile approach.
The two groups operate a “Mobile Benefit Bank” in the greater Lucas County area. To reach those in rural communities and those who may need help but don’t know what’s available, staff go to where people are likely to gather. They conduct outreach at a wide variety of community events and venues. ABLE’s and LAWO’s Mobile Benefit Bank Program counselors—trained legal aid staff and AmeriCorps workers—come equipped with laptops, mobile phones, internet access, and portable printers to help people enroll in various benefits programs using The Ohio Benefit Bank online software. “We find folks where they are and offer them these services,” Debra Jennings, the Managing Attorney of the Legal Aid Line, explained. “We go to libraries, senior centers, churches, fairs and festivals.”
At these locations counselors patiently explain to interested individuals the services that may be available to them. Individuals are screened for eligibility and, for those eligible for benefits, the counselor electronically files the client’s application with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services through the web-based software. This eliminates the need for the person to file in person.
Since the program’s inception in 2009, the Mobile Benefit Bank has helped 2,247 clients gain access to public benefits resulting in more than 3,800 persons served, including children, seniors and those with disabilities. Clients have received nearly $2 million in SNAP (Food Stamps) benefits along with heating assistance, prescription drug help, and health care benefits including Medicaid. Additionally, the program has been successful in securing more than $900,000 in federal tax refunds and $83,880 in state tax refunds for clients.
Given ABLE’s and LAWO’s expertise, counselors also encourage the people with whom they meet to fill out a legal needs survey. This questionnaire explores such issues as debt collection, divorce and custody, and bankruptcy, among several others. “Very often for the folks who are living in poverty, one issue is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Lisa Mantel, an attorney with ABLE’s Legal Aid Line. “By offering the legal needs survey, we approach them and their situation holistically.” Should the survey reveal potential legal needs, lawyers from ABLE or LAWO follow-up with the individual to offer assistance. In this way, the organizations help clients not only access support systems, but also identify deeper needs that could serve as barriers to family stability and self-sufficiency.
Several factors have contributed to this program’s success. Most obviously, its mobility enables households—particularly those in rural areas—that may otherwise remain un-served to gain access to benefits. Additionally, the model’s personalized attention helps clients feel more comfortable with navigating the public benefits system. Especially for those new to the process, this personal approach can be more welcoming than directly interfacing with government. “They could be sitting down with [the counselors] who often spend an hour of time with each client . . . People just feel more comfortable,” Jennings explains. The legal needs survey can help spot problems before they worsen and get people the legal aid they need to address issues that could hinder their economic recovery. Finally, the use of AmeriCorps members as counselors has provided a high-quality, dedicated and consistent corps of volunteers to staff the project. Recent changes to the AmeriCorps program in Ohio, though, have created new staffing challenges. ABLE and LAWO are currently working to develop alternative staffing models.